American children are socialized to be rewarded for telling subtle lies and punished for telling blunt truth, new research from Texas State University finds.
While most parents want to teach their children to tell the truth, they are inconsistent with that message in real life, according to Laure Brimbal from the School of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Texas State University. She was the lead author of a new study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Moral Education.
“This research tends to show there exists a complicated relationship with the truth that children must navigate to learn what is socially acceptable,” Brimbal said. “Most parents will have been embarrassed or upset by their children’s brutal honesty at some point. Learning to tell lies is a normal part of children’s social development.”
For example, the research found that when children tell a blunt but socially unacceptable truth — such as “I don’t want this present; it’s ugly!” — they are judged more harshly by adults than are children who bend the truth to be polite or protect others.
“Children are taught that lying is wrong, nevertheless they develop the ability to tell lies from an early age,” Brimbal said. “To date, we know little about the mechanisms and processes that underlie the development and shaping of the critical social skill of prosocial lying, despite conflicting messages from adults about the acceptability of lying as opposed to truth-telling.
“What our results reveal is that children are learning about honesty in a quite complicated environment. It appears to be an important social skill to lie to fit in with other’s expectations, but this is in despite of potential conflicting messages from their adult caregivers that it is wrong to lie … whilst in addition, it sometimes is perceived as unkind to be honest.”
The study involved 267 adults being shown videos of children ages 6 to 15 telling the truth or lying in various social situations. In some scenarios, the 24 different children lied to protect others. For example, a child lying about where their sister, who was in trouble with their parents, was hiding. In other scenarios, children lied out of politeness – such as telling a white lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.”
“Adults judged the blunt truth-tellers more harshly than those who lied or told vague truths, but only when they told lies in order to be polite,” a summary of the study explained. “When children lied to protect others, telling blunt truths or lies had less of an influence on how adults viewed the child. Overall, the study participants said they would most reward the children for telling ‘subtle truths.’”
An example of a subtle truth is when a child’s sister is hiding under the porch and doesn’t want to be found. Rather than blatantly lying — “I don’t know where she is” — or telling the blunt truth — “she’s hiding under the porch” — a subtle truth might be expressed as, “I think she might be outside.”
Children learn to nuance their truth-telling in these ways from a young age, Brimbal said. “Given the pervasive impact of socialization influences on children’s behavior, as well as the mixed messages children receive about lie-telling, it is little wonder that they engage in nuanced lie-telling from an early age.
“Our study illustrates the degree to which adults are inconsistent in their evaluations and self-reported behavioral responses to children of different ages who lie or tell the truth. Questions remain as to whether their in-person behavior would follow suit, but it is likely that these contradictory explicit and implicit messages about honesty and dishonesty act as socializing influences and shape children’s early behavior.”
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